Karen Keeves

Karen Keeves was the first Louisianan to move into a “Katrina cottage”
after her home was destroyed in the storms of 2005.
Photo: Shawn Poynter

The state of Louisiana is spending its disaster relief money much faster than nearby states that also got slammed by hurricanes in the 2005 season. But it’s hard to chart Louisiana’s progress with the human eye.

More than two years have passed since Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. The pace of recovery has been painfully slow for an outsider to watch. And I know I’ve only glimpsed what it’s been like for the people who actually live there.

I work for the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder. Since 2005 I’ve been to the Gulf Coast four times to document hurricane damage and the efforts of people there to rebuild their lives. My work is part of Rural Strategies’ hurricane recovery project, which is tracking the Gulf Coast to see what’s happening — and what isn’t — in the small communities that took the brunt of Katrina and Rita in 2005. From the images I’ve shot over nearly two years of visiting the region, I’ve assembled a brief slideshow. The music is by Dirk Powell, part of the musical Balfa family of southern Louisiana.

Capturing the scale of the destruction and recovery on the Gulf Coast has been difficult. It’s hard to shoot things that aren’t there; there’s no way to compare before and after.

One example: Holly Beach, Louisiana. In the opening frames of the slide show, it looks like a barren sand flat. Aside from utility poles and random debris like a set of stairs leading nowhere, there’s no sign that it was actually a neighborhood of 300 homes. All 300 were washed away by Hurricane Rita in September 2005.

Nothing in my news photography career prepared me for what I found in Louisiana. Not the wildfires I shot in New Mexico or tornadoes in Kentucky and Michigan. Those were swaths of disaster. Rita and Katrina are biblical in proportion. In Cameron Parish, the location of Holly Beach, I drove for an hour without seeing one structure that wasn’t either gutted or demolished. And this was four months after the hurricane.

Holly Beach

Holly Beach, LA, in Cameron Parish was scoured by the hurricanes.
Four months after the storms it still looked like a wasteland.
Photo: Shawn Poynter

On my first visit in January 2006 — to towns from Delacambre to Holly Beach — residents were still digging through the mud, unearthing a few keepsakes amidst lots of junk. The floodwaters had covered graveyards and ruined churches.

Residents I met had a matter-of-fact attitude about their state of affairs. “Katrina done the top, all the top,” said one resident of Jean Lafitte, pointing to the ruined ceiling in her home. “And then Rita came and done all the bottom,” referring to the buckling floors and ruined walls.

The scale of suffering is immense. Families have been uprooted, forced into small camper trailers — if they are lucky. In the space that would barely accommodate a small hospital bed, I found the Pitre family, an invalid woman, her sick father-in-law and her husband, all living and making do with the shelter that was available.

But I’ve also been fortunate enough to see progress. Over the course of two years I’ve seen the Pitres move back into their restored home. Before they could do so, they raised the house on pilings, gutted it, rewired and plumbed, hung new paneling and drywall, and much more. Multiply this effort by 100,000 and perhaps we get some sense of the work required to bring this rural region back to anything approaching normal.

I also shot photos of Karen Keeves, the first person in Louisiana to receive one of the Katrina cottages, prefabricated A-frame houses that developers hope will provide affordable and safe shelter for thousands more displaced people.

gulf coast fiances

Gabby Decollette and fiance Daniel Mareno were the first to have their home rebuilt
on the Atakapa island of Grand Bayou, LA.

Photo: Shawn Poynter

During my last trip, in July of this year, I traveled to Grand Bayou, a small island in the gulf that is home to the Atakapa, Louisiana’s “first people.” After two years of living in trailers and recreation centers on the mainland, the community was just beginning to work on restoring their homes and public structures. They’d been delayed by utility problems, bureaucracy, lack of help. Whatever the reasons, it’s been too long to wait.

These are just a few of the sights and stories I found in Louisiana. There are many more. And this doesn’t even touch on what’s happening in Mississippi; there Rural Strategies is following a whole different set of recovery issues involving the working conditions of many hundreds of immigrants who have moved to the region for jobs.

I’ll be going back to the Gulf Coast in the next year. I’d love to find a miracle when I return. I know I’ll have to settle for much less.

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